Trying to See the Unexpected

We find ourselves at the beginning of the Jesus story as told from the perspective of John—the Evangelist, by the way, not the one who sets out to baptize. Our writer John describes how the other John was sent by God to bear witness, to testify, to the light. We’re told right from the start that John is not the light, but the one sent to proclaim the coming of that light. We know, of course, that that light is Jesus, and in the section we didn’t read from John’s Prologue this morning—in the bits we skipped over—we hear that the light came into the world but the world didn’t know him. They didn’t recognize him. The could not see him.

An Advent Sermon on John 1.

But they do see John out there along the water’s edge. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem—and that is often what is meant when our gospeler says, “the Jews,” it’s not the whole collective population of faithful Jewish people, but the subset of those holding the power—these ones sent out a reconnaissance mission to find out exactly what was up with John. “Who are you?” they dutifully ask, and John instantly says that he’s not the Messiah, which is not really what they were asking. “Are you Elijah, then?” they query. “Nope,” he says again. “Are you a prophet like Moses?” “Not me,” he says. “Then who are you?” they ask. And John doesn’t even bother to give them his name, instead employing the words of prophet Isaiah to answer them: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” So that’s it finally, he is, as theologian Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “John the Voice.”

He’s not the light. He’s not the Messiah, the prophet, or Elijah. He’s simply the one giving testimony for the light. In fact, he isn’t even worthy enough to bend over and help untie that one’s sandal straps. He’s simply there to get things ready for his arrival, for the world to be able to see him when he arrives. And, John the Voice says emphatically, the light is already there among them, they just don’t know it.

In short they’re blind. They cannot see what is very well there in front of them. They cannot recognize the light.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, we meet Marie-Laure a blind French girl living in Saint-Malo along the French coast during World War II. She is fascinated with short wave radios from early on in her life when she used to listen to broadcasts from a man who called himself “The Professor.” He broadcasts nature and science programs for children, explaining to them the beauty of the natural world. During one of these broadcasts The Professor says, “What do we call visible light? We call it ‘color.’ But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction, and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” He expresses how the light that cannot be seen is the most important, like radio waves that carry the sound from his voice over the air to those listening on the other end. Or the other types of light waves, from micro-waves and infrared light to gamma rays, that are all on the spectrum and which we cannot see. 

The theme of course plays out in other ways in the novel. The fact that Marie is blind but able to see the truth about others. Or how her story, while fictional, represents the many stories of countless ordinary people during World War II that might never be known or brought to light, but are still vitally important none the less. Or, as one reviewer put it, how “the possibilities we cannot imagine are the most important that might ever come to fruition.” The unimagined possibility in the novel is the hope for the end of the War. What we cannot see is perhaps the most significant.

Which makes me want to ask, what light are we unable to see this Advent? How might our narrow spectrum of understanding limit us as we prepare to get ready for Christ’s arrival?

Or perhaps the question is really this: Have we become like the ones sent to investigate John, so convinced that we know what we’re looking for that we miss the very thing that is right in front of us? Have we perhaps become those who do not recognize Jesus?

Kass Dotterweich tells the story of her son Joseph as he prepared for Christmas one year. During that Advent when he was seven, Joe began to act strangely. He could be found looking under furniture and rustling through items on the dining room table with inquisitive looks on his face. Kass had learned to leave her six children alone if they weren’t hurting each other or in danger, and so Joe continued on with his antics for days. 

Finally, Christmas Eve arrived and the tree went up and the presents they had received from relatives and purchased for each other were put underneath. It was at that point that Kass began to worry. Joe had excitedly put presents for everyone under the tree, yet she knew he didn’t have the money to purchase anything. It had only been a few months before when Joe was caught shoplifting an eraser by a store clerk. Kass wondered if she should carefully open his poorly wrapped presents to check on their legality. She chose just to wait.

Early on Christmas Day it was obvious Joe was excited about the presents he was giving, and Kass began to rehearse the conversation in her head. “Oh honey, how nice. Where did you get that? Did Grandma help you pick it out? Did she pay for it?” 

Joe handed his first present to his oldest sister, Christine. She looked sheepishly at the horribly wrapped present. Joe was a ball of excitement. She slowly opened it up, and then quickened her pace once she caught a glimpse of what it was. Kass writes, “Christine’s eyes danced with glee as she held up a hairbrush—the very hairbrush she had been missing for weeks and the only one that ‘worked’ with her hair.”

“Where’d you find it, Joe?” she asked, but he ignored the question and gave another poorly wrapped present to his brother Jerome. Within minutes he was smiling because inside a beat up shoe box was the cleats he had lost before the play-off games the summer before which Joe had searched for a long time to find.

Kass herself received a small statue of Mary and the babe, a cheap trinket she had on her desk and one that Joe took weeks before although she hadn’t noticed. She writes, “Joseph … gave me a renewed appreciation for the joy of surprise. With great sadness I admit here, decades later, that I had been watching my son through a mother’s critical eyes—not through a mother’s eyes of wonder. I had shut down on my own child’s potential for good and focused only on his limitations, expecting something disturbing instead of delightful. … By making assumptions about what I considered inevitable I had robbed myself of the graces of anticipation and expectation.”

What light are we unable to see this Advent? How might our narrow view of understanding limit us as we prepare to get ready for Christ’s arrival?

Poet Mary Oliver offers us this advice in her poem “Evidence”: “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” Put another way, don’t fill up the space so much that your interior life suffers. Don’t close off the light that you cannot see simply because you are not expecting it. Allow the Spirit of God to come in and prepare a place for Jesus to be born anew, turning cynicism into hopefulness. Open your heart up to the ways in which Jesus the Light might appear unexpectedly, bringing you exactly what you need. Do not come to the manger at Bethlehem knowing already what you will see. Rather ask God to prepare your heart to receive that which you cannot even begin to imagine. Make room for the unexpected. 

Image by C Stock from Pixabay

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